Lessons Learned Scaling Airbnb 100X

1. When jumpstarting a marketplace, set super specific goals — then do whatever it takes to get there.

You may have already read the lore about how Brian and Joe initially got the flywheel going in New York: meeting every host in person, photographing host listings, and leveraging a variety of growth hacks. By the time I joined, those efforts had paid off, and New York made up a significant portion of stays. So how could we replicate the success of New York in other markets?

2. Be willing to take a risk to serve your community.

In July 2011, less than 48 hours after it happened, the story of a host’s trashed home was on the front page of the business sections of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times. It created a media firestorm with many predicting the end of Airbnb. We had never encountered such an existential crisis. Advisors told us that we were merely a marketplace and should not get involved in dealings between a guest and host. Our founders fundamentally disagreed. They wanted to restore trust to the community.

As part of our efforts to build trust, we launched a 24/7 phone support line along with the Host Guarantee. There I am on the home page, “answering the phone,” on August 22, 2011.

3. When competition appears, move faster than you think you possibly can.

No sooner had we learned to build supply than competition came knocking on our door in the form of a European copycat. (And when I say copycat, I mean it. We even found our job reqs on their site — some with Airbnb still listed as employer!) The competitor had just received $90 million in funding and ramped up to 400 employees in two months. Our guests use Airbnb to travel and if we lost Europe, we really wouldn’t be in the business of “travel” anymore. Growing on our own timetable was officially out the window.

Office expansion in early 2012

4. When it comes to edge cases, understand your tipping point (because they’ll bury you at scale!).

As we moved into peak summer travel of 2012, organic growth was kicking into high gear — and operations were getting strained. We had 200,000 listings now. Edge cases that had once happened a few times a day were now happening 50 or 100 times a day. Reservation cancellations (and alterations, refunds, resolutions between guests and hosts) were all still handled by email, then manually implemented by a customer support rep. At one point, we had more customer contacts than actual reservations, insanely low efficiency.

  • How many users are impacted? (number of users)
  • How important is this to the user? (severity of the contact)
  • Can manual efforts continue to address this? (complexity of solution)
  • How many resources would it take to solve? (engineering hours)
  • Can we leverage the work on this solution and apply it to other problems? (impact of solution)

5. When the fires are out, don’t rest. Focus on streamlining the user experience.

Eventually, Airbnb moved out of triage mode. But we didn’t let our guard down — we turned our focus to studying how people were using the product, and what we could do better.

Closing Thoughts

I’ve learned something at every step of my Airbnb journey, but the crunch times have been the most educational. Don’t fear them, and know that you will get through them. Airbnb’s inflection points are when the team discovered its ethos and when we created unique solutions to seemingly immense challenges. Airbnb is a wildly collaborative place that has pushed my thinking about what is possible, working backward from the ideal solution. I’ve come to realize that the far out ideas are possible, it just takes dedication to solve any problem that comes your way. Tackling the right problems at the right time ultimately determines the growth trajectory of a marketplace, and the most crucial contribution of any startup leadership team is understanding what problems to address and when. So always take lessons from former and current marketplace successes like Airbnb, but find your own path too.

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